Tinseltown Throwdown – South Park vs. Team America

The Colorado born and raised duo of Trey Parker and Matt Stone have become two of the most unexpected influential filmmakers of the last quarter century.  As humorists, they are drawn to often sophomoric, low brow gags about flatulence and excessive vulgarity.  They are also some of the most astute satirists of their era, managing to perfectly mock their targets with some of the sharpest jabs known in comedy.  They are very much a combination of contradictions that in one way or another have managed to change and re-shape the worlds of filmmaking, politics, humor and animation over the years.  But, of course when you try to pin them down to one thing, Parker and Stone will refute your assesment of them.  As filmmakers, they have always strived to do one thing, which is to make movies and shows that they themselves find funny.  Their body of work reflects that well, especially the program that they are most well known for: the long running animated series South Park, which continues to run on Comedy Central after over 25 years.  Parker and Stone first connected while attending college at the University of Colorado in Boulder and found that their interests in cinema aligned perfectly.  They collaborated on a number of short student films while Trey Parker was also refining his skills in an animation program.  Parker’s animated thesis project titled American History (1992) became an unexpected hit and surprisingly earned him a Student Academy Award.  This helped to propel him quickly to Hollywood, and his friend Matt Stone was there by his side.  They spent years trying to develop projects that would get noticed in the industry while still adhering to their oddball sensibilities.  They managed to successfully get funding for their first feature, Cannibal: The Musical (1994), and had it play at Sundance, though it languished soon after without a wide distributor.  Meanwhile, Parker animated another short in the paper cut-out style that he used on American History.  This short called The Spirit of Christmas was a satirical play on upbeat Rankin Bass style holiday specials, but it introduced something more that would go on to define the rest of Parker and Stone’s careers; the town of South Park and it’s quirky inhabitants.

While The Spirit of Christmas special never got picked up by a TV station, a bootleg copy did manage to get out into the wild.  It got passed along to multiple A-listers in Hollywood, all of whom thought that it was one of the funniest things that they had ever seen.  Soon after, Parker and Stone, who had been languishing on the outskirts of the industry for a few years, were now in demand and getting meetings across the industry.  Naturally, they leaned into the success of The Spirit of Christmas and pitched a show completely about the town of South Park.  The show was picked up by the newly re-branded cable channel, Comedy Central, and South Park made it’s debut in the summer of 1997.  The show was an automatic hit, though it also stirred up quite a controversy too.  For those who thought The Simpsons was risque for it’s time were absolutely appalled once South Park arrived on the scene.  South Park was crude, vulgar, and unforgiving with it’s satirical edge.  What also made people take notice was how quickly South Park could comment on current events, as their newly adopted computer enhanced animation allowed them very short turnarounds on their episodes.  This, as a result, made Parker and Stone very influential political satirists as well, though the very centrist filmmakers would balk at being tied to any political ideology.  Nevertheless, their most monumental contributions to cinema have been movies that do address politics in a significant way.  While the duo has created a number of projects over the years, their biggest cinematic achievements are a big screen adaptation of their hit show, slyly titled South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (1999), and a War on Terror satire starring puppets called Team America: World Police (2004).  While there are major differences between the movie, the also are similar in that they represent Parker and Stone at their most pointed when hitting their satirical targets.

“I’m sorry I can’t help myself.  That movie has warped my fragile little mind.”

It should be noted the times in which the two films were made, as the political climates were very different (even in the span of 5 years) and they would be very influential on the themes of each film.  South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut was made in the tail end of the Clinton era in U.S. politics.  It was an era defined by peacetime and economic prosperity, but also about political division domestically as well.  The political opposition in America, defined by the Republican Party, tried to make a big deal about President Bill Clinton’s extra-marital affairs, both inside and outside of office, and this ended up turning into a debate about morality in American culture.  The arguments Republicans made about appropriate behavior would at times turn Puritanical, and this made people in the arts worried about a cultural backlash that would lead to more censorship.  This was also on the mind of Parker and Stone, as they centered the story of their South Park movie on this question of the limits of free expression.  In the movie, the South Park kids (Stan, Kyle, Kenny, and Cartman) begin to use more bad language than usual after seeing their favorite cartoon characters, Terrence and Phillip, in their newest movie. As a result, the parents of the kids go on a crusade to censor Terrence and Philip and everyone like them, which spirals out of control into a war between America and Canada which in turn could trigger the Apocalypse.  Of course, it’s Parker and Stone taking the situation to a hilariously extreme place, but you can’t help feel that they are drawing from the same censorship pressures that they have faced over the years in creating the story for this movie.  But, the world would be much different when Team America was made.  Not only would the Republican Party be back in power under President George W. Bush, but America was also hit by the worst terrorist attack in history with 9/11.  The response would find America once again on a war footing, and even more divided than before politically; with unfair questioning of patriotism leveled at those who opposed the war.  With Team America, Parker and Stone again take a critical eye towards the divisiveness of American politics and poke fun at both the callousness of unchecked patriotic fervor, as well as the impotent rage of those trying to combat it while not providing a clear alternative.  With regards to both films, they are very much perfect snapshots of the cultural mood of America in the times that they were made, and it’s fascinating to see just how different the country had changed in five short years.

“Remember, there is no ‘I’ in Team America.”  “Yes there is.”

What is interesting about Parker and Stone is how they have changed up their styles as filmmakers over the years.  They are not filmmakers who want to be tied down to just one style.  Before South Park, their filmography was certainly within the realm of comedy, but their targets were very different.  Cannibal: The Musical took traditional Hollywood musicals in the vein of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) and Oklahoma (1955) and added the gruesome aspect of cannibalism to the mix.  Their follow-up was a satire of the adult film industry with Orgazmo (1997), which again brought their absurdist sense of humor into a different kind of genre.  Even after their success with South Park and Team America, they would try their creative talents in a whole different kind of artform, creating the smash hit Broadway musical The Book of Mormon.  The same approach they have used for every film and project of theirs is well illustrated in the different ways that South Park and Team America are made.  South Park uses the same cut-out style of the show, but with the assistance of their computer animation, they are able to take the show’s style ever further thanks to the expanded budget of the movie.  The movie is also free from TV regulations and it leans hard into that R-rating with language.  And yet, it is a perfect continuation of the show on a grander scale.  Team America is definitely a different kind of movie altogether.  Instead of animation, they used marionette puppets on elaborate miniature sets.  It was inspired by the Sunday morning marionette show, Thunderbirds from the 1960’s, but they wanted to do that same kind of show with a Jerry Bruckheimer action flair to it.  The result is a hilarious riff on both, as the movie is a bombastic action film, but the characters are all still limited by the physicality of marionette puppetry.  One definitely has to marvel at the craft of it. as some of the miniature sets are insanely well detailed and the puppets are surprisingly expressive given their limited movement.  But, in typical Parker and Stone fashion, the comedy strives to reach the limits of what they are allowed, including having the puppets engaged in a very graphic sex scene mid-way through the movie.  With the South Park movie and Team America, you really see the filmmaking duo at the peak of their creative powers.

Where the films do deviate a bit is in terms of how well they have held up over the years.  In truth, they both still work as comedies and cinematic achievements in craft, but they are also limited by the fact that they are both products of their time.  In terms of how well these over twenty year old movies still play in the 2024, the times have been a bit kinder to South Park.  The ongoing debate about censorship and morality has morphed into a sadly never-ending “Culture War,” where conservatives and liberals have spilled over their political disagreements into the realm of pop culture, and has polarized the discourse even more.  Even South Park continues to be a battleground to this day, with right-wingers latching onto the critiques of major studios like Disney made in the recent special South Park: Joining the Paderverse, while at the same time misreading the more nuanced take that Parker and Stone are putting forth condemning people who only complain about stuff being “woke” while missing the point about corporations who just pander to marginalized groups and do nothing worthwhile to help them.  You can definitely see the beginnings of the “Culture War” crusade in the South Park movie, with the parents shirking responsibility for their parenting by blaming outside influence; in this case the nation of Canada.  You can see the same kind of scapegoating happening today, especially targeting the LGBTQ community.  Parker and Stone definitely saw the dangers of a mob mentality that sought to suppress creative expression and it’s terrible that this movie is just as relevant today as it was then.  On the other side, Team America unfortunately is weighed down by it’s War on Terror era identification.  With America largely out of their costly foreign wars today, the World Police aspect of the movie no longer feels relevant.  What unfortunately ages the movie even worse is the needless crude jokes aimed at the LGBTQ community.  Some are still funny, like how the Team America leader Spottswoode requires oral sex from the new guy Gary as a trust building measure of good faith, but other jokes really don’t age well.  The worst one would have to be the abbreviation for the Film Actors Guild, which of course turns into a derogatory slur for gay people; a joke that Parker and Stone thankfully have removed themselves from over the years.  By contrast, South Park has a surprisingly mature take on a gay relationship in it’s film, albeit between Satan and Saddam Hussein.  Even still, the jokes about the surface level, jingoistic patriotism of Bush-era America still hit pretty hard, especially in a time when it’s reached a scarier, fascistic level under Trump.  Also, the jokes at Alec Baldwin’s expense have aged like fine wine.

“Hey Satan, don’t be such a twit.  Mother Theresa won’t have shit on me.”

There’s another thing that connects the movies together, which also is something that makes them very different as well.  Continuing their tradition of incorporating music as a fundamental feature in their filmography, ever since they started with Cannibal: The Musical, both the South Park movie and Team America can be classified as musicals.  The label is more appropriate for the South Park movie, but given that every song in Team America is original, it can’t be dismissed as anything other than a musical.  The songs in Team America definitely feel like a compilation of songs that you would hear in the soundtrack of a Bruckheimer action film, ala Top Gun (1987) or Armageddon (1998).  A lot of rock music, country music, and any sort of red, white and blue tinted American styling that fits with the tone of the comedy.  What is amazing is that most of the songs are sung by Trey Parker himself, doing his best Springsteen imitation.  The majority of them are hilarious send-ups of action movie rock music, but the most hilarious one would have to the central theme called “America, F#$k Yeah.”  This song alone is one of the funniest things that Parker and Stone have ever written, as it is just takes jingoistic patriotism to the extreme, resulting in just a laundry list of things America has followed by “F$%k Yeah” from the chorus.  The other songs are good, but this is definitely the high point of the soundtrack.  The South Park movie by contrast is a much more standard musical film, and it also shows a more collaborative effort on the soundtrack than what they had on Team America.  For South Park, the duo worked with an actual Broadway and film score vet, Marc Shaiman, to develop the musical score.  The collaboration works as each song is well integrated into the story, including songs originally made for the show, like “Kyle’s Mom is a Bitch” and “What Would Brian Boitano Do?”  The highlight of the newer songs is definitely the Oscar-nominated “Blame Canada.”  While they did ultimately lose their Oscar to Phil Collins for a song he wrote for Disney’s Tarzan (1999), they team still had one of the greatest Oscar ceremony performances ever, with Robin Williams getting to sing the song in a lavish stage performance worthy of Broadway.  While both movies have great, hilarious songs in them, the music is just a more important factor in the South Park movie and as a result it enriches that movie more.

When it comes to be a technical achievement, I don’t think anything tops Team America with regards to Parker and Stone’s body of work as a whole.  The team spent years crafting the movie, all the while still working on new seasons of South Park.  Trey Parker described the experience of making Team America to be the most grueling thing he or Matt Stone have ever done; something that holds true to this day.  They went into the project with no experience in puppetry, and they were now tasked with not only perfecting it but also pushing the artform into a scope and scale unheard of before.  The film was only greenlighted by Paramount Studios in the first place because the executives were under the impression that a puppet movie would be cheap to make.  But when you look at the film, it’s ambitious in a way you would never think that a movie with marionette puppets would ever be.  The scale of the sets are incredible, especially the ones set in Cairo, the Panama Canal, and at Kim Jung-Il’s palace in North Korea.  One of the biggest assets to the making of the film was getting a veteran cinematographer on board who would shoot this fabricated world in the same way he would a true live action film.  They found that man in Bill Pope, who among other things has shot films like The Matrix (1999) and Spider-Man 2 (2004).  While South Park was just the show with an expanded budget, Team America was a true cinematic experiment that really paid off.  You can see the care put into the crafting of the movie, where it even gets to the point where you forget that you are watching puppets instead of real people on screen.  It’s a perfect execution of a vision that Parker and Stone set out to make a reality.  It’s unfortunate that they haven’t really done anything as uniquely different as this since.  Their focus probably got diverted to Broadway with Book of Mormon, where they saw that as their next mountain to conquer.  But in the last decade, it’s largely just been South Park and not much else.  One would hope that they have something unique in the cards like Team America still in them.  Perhaps the difficulty in making the movie has prevented them from trying it again.

“You are worthless, Arec Barrwin.”

Both South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut and Team America: World Police have held up remarkably well over the years, but the former certainly feels more prescient than the latter.  South Park’s take on “culture war” anxiety boiling over just shows how far ahead of it’s time it was, with the “blame Canada” fanatics not feeling that much dissimilar from the anti-woke culture warriors of today.  Team America’s look at the recklessness of the War on Terror and the resulting jingoistic patriotism that spawned from it  also helps it to stand out as a political satire, though it’s a lot more tied to it’s era than South Park is.  For the most part, Trey Parker and Matt Stone have done well to not tie themselves down to any particular ideology.  If anything, their critiques are aimed at the extremes of both the right and the left, and that is exemplified by these two movies.  They are not agenda driven movies, but really they exist primarily to point out the absurdity of politics in general.  That being said, there are times when their critiques get overshadowed by their desire to shock their audience.  For the most part, they are very good at poking fun at the targets that deserve the ridicule, but times do change values and some of the jokes that would have been funny in the past unfortunately don’t translate as well to the present.  That’s where South Park seems to benefit the most, because of it’s more universal theme about censorship and self-expression.  Also, by being the more heightened world in animation, South Park can get away with a bit more than the more grounded Team America.  As a filmmaking achievement, it can definitely be said that Team America represents Parker and Stone at the height of their craft, but as a cinematic experience, South Park is just the more complete package, and it’s clear why to this day the show remains the duo’s favorite child.  Even still, Team America is still far more cutting and relentless than the majority of political satires out there.  It is especially much better than any partisan political satire made in the year’s since, particularly from those on the right.  While they do have flaws, South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut and Team America: World Police are still lightyears ahead of most modern satires, and that is something that definitely puts Trey Parker and Matt Stone in a class all their own as a filmmaking team.

“It seems that everything’s gone wrong since Canada came along.”

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